An easier way to do disability hearings?
Hundreds now facing prospect of traveling to the Front Range
By Kelcie Pegher
Constituents in the Four Corners could be provoking change in the Social Security Administration by reintroducing video conferencing for appeals hearings.
In 2011, the Durango remote hearing site for Social Security hearings and appeals was closed because of budgetary constraints. This has been a particular hardship for those with disability claims, who are forced to travel to Colorado Springs for a hearing.
In a letter to the Social Security commissioner, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet asked that those in Southwest Colorado once again be allowed to utilize video conferencing for hearings. The counties affected include La Plata, Dolores, San Juan, Montezuma and Archuleta. There currently are 211 pending cases for hearings, local Social Security officials said.
Ray Davis, 43, is among those who have made the nearly six-hour drive from the Four Corners to Colorado Springs for a hearing. The Cortez resident with a fusion in his back took two days to make the drive last September. Because he cannot sit for long periods of time, his wife accompanied him, and they had to find someone to watch their high school-aged son.
The Social Security Administration reimburses those who travel to Colorado Springs.
“The reimbursement procedure isn’t bad; it’s just that I’m unable to drive myself for these distances,” Davis said. “It’s just a pain for everybody involved.”
After the remote location closed, Bennet’s office began receiving complaints almost immediately about the travel. Attorney Robert Dawes, who had been working on Social Security disability cases since 1975, no longer accepts cases because of the amount of time it takes to even get a hearing.
Dawes said he was unaware the Durango Social Security office was a temporary site.
“As long as I’ve been in Durango, we’ve had hearings in Durango,” he said.
Bringing back video-conference hearings could be done administratively and would not require new legislation. A representative from Bennet’s office said it hopes to receive a response from the commissioner and get a change in place. The Social Security Administration did not return phone calls regarding Bennet’s letter.
Staff members in Bennet’s Durango office have been investigating the possibility of using the new video-conferencing center at Fort Lewis College for the hearings. Another alternative is Farmington.
Dawes avoided traveling to Colorado Springs with one client who could not make the trip and had a video-conference hearing in Farmington. He said the video screen was small, but as long as the correct technologies exist, there are few downfalls to the process.
Davis agreed that video conferencing is not ideal but said it was a good place to start. Dawes said the problem attorneys have found with video conferencing is that separate federal government agencies have different systems for each office and are unable to accommodate other agencies.
“There’s a lot of cases where it helps to be in person in front of the judge, but the video conferencing would be better than nothing,” Davis said.